- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2007

Maryland is coming off its first loss of the season, a Thursday night setback against No. 5 West Virginia after a draining and crammed week

The fun, though, is just beginning for the Terrapins (2-1, 0-0 ACC), who visit defending league champion Wake Forest (1-2, 0-1) today in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“We’re going into a four-round heavyweight fight before the bye,” receivers coach Bryan Bossard said. “We lost the first round, but Wake Forest is Round 2, Rutgers is Round 3 and Georgia Tech is Round 4.”

And winning at least one round — this one, in particular — is paramount for a team still hard to assess three games into its season.

After all, Maryland has done about what anyone outside the program would have reasonably expected this month. The Terps disposed of Villanova and Florida International with the grind-it-out treatment they typically reserve for early-season fodder. Then they hung with West Virginia for a half before the offense misfired and the defense tired after the break.

Today’s game offers a different scenario. The Demon Deacons are unranked but are anything but a pushover under crafty coach Jim Grobe. They will have quarterback Riley Skinner (separated shoulder) back from a two-game absence and will rely on a misdirection-heavy offense that flummoxed the Terps 10 months ago.

It is also a first glimpse at league play for the Terps, whose last conference game was a 38-24 loss to Wake Forest that dashed their hopes of a shot at an ACC title.

“I see it more than anything as a must-have,” defensive tackle Dre Moore said. “It’s the first ACC game and if we want to accomplish our goals and go back and get to the championship, we have to have it.”

While Moore and the defense were under constant scrutiny in the days before the West Virginia loss, greater attention was paid to the offense this week. The Terps sputtered in the final three quarters against Florida International, and after a solid first-quarter drive against West Virginia managed nothing meaningful until the game was decided.

Coach Ralph Friedgen would like to see more explosiveness (the Terps have only eight plays of 20 or more yards), and that could mean stretching the field with wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey. But a complete turnaround from the blase diet of short passes and routine handoffs should not be expected.

“We’re still going to run the offense that we work in,” Heyward-Bey said. “We’re not going to do anything outrageous and change things around and throw the playbook in the trash can. We’re not going to do anything like that. We’re going to work within our game plan and do some tweaks here and there.”

Wake Forest will have its own overhaul this week with Skinner back in the lineup. The sophomore told reporters Thursday he would play, which should invigorate an offense that generated five touchdowns in its first three games.

Skinner’s right shoulder no doubt will be an appealing target for the Terps, but there are other worries about a player who has been sidelined for a few weeks.

“Is he capable of getting back into the groove as far as the mental aspect, picking up coverages and getting us in the right play and in the right formations because he’s been out of it for a while?” Grobe asked. “I think that’s our biggest concern, not just getting him back in but getting him back in and playing effectively. If he does that, he’ll be a real boost to our football team, no question.”

Skinner, while hardly a flashy quarterback, ran the Demon Deacons’ gimmick-driven offense smoothly with superb decision-making. A cadre of slippery tailbacks and receivers only makes Wake more effective.

Of course, Maryland has seen such a test already. West Virginia might be college football’s king of spread-based trickery, and the Terps defensed the Mountaineers’ top weapons (running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White) reasonably well last week.

“For us to go against guys that run like that and then go against Wake Forest — no disrespect because they have some pretty fast guys— it just makes the game slow down for us,” safety Christian Varner said. “It won’t look so fast because we’ve already seen fast fast fast.”

A look at a similar team will provide an early barometer for improvement, as well as a measure of how Maryland responds to a loss. Most importantly, many unknowns will be cleared up today as Friedgen — and everyone else — gets a better read on a group difficult to gauge so far.

“I think we’re capable of being of being a very good team,” Friedgen said. “There’s times I watch us and I said, ‘Whoa, we’re pretty good,’ and there’s times I watch us and say, ‘Why did we do that?’ That’s the frustrating thing to me.”

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